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irregular times logoThe Chant Not Heard and the Logic of Protest

In the New York Times of November 30, 2003, Thomas Friedman complained about London protesters in his column "The Chant Not Heard": "I stood on the sidewalk in London the other day and watched thousands of antiwar, anti-George Bush, anti-Tony Blair protesters pass by. They chanted every antiwar slogan you could imagine and many you couldn't print. It was entertaining but also depressing, because it was so disconnected from the day's other news. Just a few hours earlier, terrorists in Istanbul had blown up a British-owned bank and the British consulate, killing or wounding scores of British and Turkish civilians. Yet nowhere could I find a single sign in London reading, 'Osama, How Many Innocents Did You Kill Today?' or 'Baathists Hands Off the U.N. and the Red Cross in Iraq.'"

Ten days earlier, Mr. Friedman struck a similar tone: "To be sure, some people simply will never be winnable because they hate America above all else. (That may explain why you don't see any protesters here carrying signs saying, 'Death to bin Laden,' 'Saddam: How many Iraqis did you kill today?'...)"

To boil it down, Mr. Friedman's editorials contend that anti-war and anti-Bush protesters do not protest bin Laden and Hussein because they hate America above all else. While this contention is undeniably convenient to those who, like Mr. Friedman, disdain the current wave of dissent, it betrays a profound misunderstanding of the logic of protest. A brief elaboration of the logic of these protests makes it clear that Mr. Friedman's "they hate America" label betrays as little reflection as George W. Bush's assertion that terrorists attack because they hate American freedom.

The logic of protest emerges from a central assumption that drives the time, place and target of a protest, namely that it is possible to change the behavior of the target of protest. Participants in pre-planned, organized protests like the one Mr. Friedman witnessed choose to protest when they believe that it is possible for their protest to have an effect. The act of political protest directed at the targets of the American and British governments is at heart an affirmative one, because it relies on the conviction that British and American political systems are potentially responsive to public displays of dissent. That's not a hateful stance, but rather a positive assessment of the state of British and American democracy.

The above assumption has a corrolary, that appropriate targets of protest should be ones the behavior of which it is possible for protesters to change. There's no sense in protesting something or someone over which one has no control. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein is a member of either the British or the American government, and not one of the protesters Mr. Friedman saw is a citizen of a state that is ruled by bin Laden or Hussein and that is responsive to protest. Carrying signs protesting the undeniably bad acts of the Baath Party, bin Laden or Hussein would make no more sense than carrying a sign protesting the Sun for causing skin cancer; in neither case is the act of carrying that sign going to change the behavior of the offender.

What would carrying a sign in opposition to Saddam Hussein, while standing in the middle of London, after Hussein has been driven out of office, accomplish? Nothing practical; it would simply be a venting of an emotional feeling. But the protesters witnessed by Mr. Friedman are not like rioting sports fans who spontaneously gather to vent emotion. I would not be surprised to find that Mr. Friedman saw evidence of emotion on the faces of protest participants. But the protests Mr. Friedman witnessed were carefully planned months in advance, with time, place and target chosen in a deliberative process. Unlike spontaneous protest, organized protest is rationally organized with instrumental policy goals. No instrumental policy goal would be furthered by the inclusion of an anti-bin Laden, anti-Hussein or anti-Baath placard.

To sum up:

  1. The presence of anti-Bush and anti-Blair placards reflected the protesters' faith in the democratic potential for their public display of dissent to affect British policies (and, through British pressure, American policies).

  2. The absence of anti-bin Laden, anti-Hussein and anti-Baath placards reflected the protesters' understanding that their potential for democratic political influence did not extend to bin Laden (hiding in a cave), Hussein (hiding in a basement) or the Baath Party (an extra-legal organization operating in the shadows).

  3. The presence of messages compatible with rational policy goals and the absence of messages compatible only with emotional expressive goals is an outcome that reflects the pre-planned, non-spontaneous structure of the protests Mr. Friedman witnessed.

The protesters Mr. Friedman witnessed had their eyes on the prize: not simply focusing on the expression of an emotion like hatred, but rather focusing on the need for policy change. In his future editorial writing, Mr. Friedman would do well to follow the protesters' example by avoiding pointless emotional attacks and keeping his eyes on the policy behaviors that we actually have the power to change.

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